I remember waking up on 14th February 1936 feeling very apprehensive but a little excited. I wondered what Falcutt House would be like. Would there be any other girls there of my age? More to the point, would they be friendly with me? I said my goodbyes and mother took me to the bus stop. She carried my suitcase for me and promised to meet me in Northampton in the near future. We both knew that my half-day would not be long enough to travel home to Stanwick.
The journey seemed endless but when I reached Northampton I remembered the way to Cross Keys, there I saw the Helmdon bus and it wasn’t long before the conductor said, “This is where you get off”. As I stepped off the bus I saw a uniformed chauffeur standing beside a long car. “Are you Miss Cook?”, he said. I just nodded. “Get in the car. I’m taking you to Falcutt.”
He pointed out the house to me after we left the village of Helmdon and I was speechless. It looked huge and my first thought was that I would surely get lost in there! The drive leading to the house was quite long but I could see the large lawns and the lovely trees and the tennis courts.
When the car stopped outside the kitchen door, the chauffeur rang the bell and the butler appeared. I later learned his name was Manning. He called the cook and she took my case and said, “I will show you where your bedroom is. You will always use the back stairs when to go to and from your bedroom”.
After climbing three flights of stairs we finally reached the attic bedroom, which I was to share with one of the housemaids. There was just a dressing table and a chair for each of us, and a cupboard to hang our uniform in. There was a bathroom on the same landing. I wondered if I would be allowed to bath in it. At home we always heated the water in the copper and then it was transferred to a long tin bath. The thought of a nice modern bathroom made me feel a bit better. I put on my uniform and found my way downstairs.
The kitchen at Falcutt House was huge. There was a large black kitchen range and a modern Aga cooker, a long kitchen table, a large dresser and a cupboard where all dried food was kept. There were no refrigerators at the time, but the meat and poultry was kept outside in a large safe. The floor of the kitchen was a red brick tile, and I later learned that I was to scrub it twice a week. At one end of the kitchen there was a large sink with long wooden draining boards on each side. The cook told me where everything was kept and then she said, “I will show you to the servants’ hall. We will all be having tea in there soon and I will introduce you to everyone”.
As we entered the servants’ hall I first noticed the welcoming coal fire and a large stone fireplace. The cook said, “From tomorrow morning you will have to clean out the ashes in this fireplace and set a good fire going by 6.30 am”. I realised then that I would have to rise at 6 o’clock each morning. My only previous experience of lighting fires was when I was in the Girl Guides.
I helped prepare tea for the staff, and when it was ready the cook rang a bell. I was the introduced to the parlour-maid Olive, whose home was in Ipswich, Margaret, the head-housemaid, who came from
Newcastle, and then to Edith Ballinger, one of the housemaids, whose home was in Paulersbury in Northamptonshire. The butler and chauffeur each had a cottage on the estate where they lived with their wives and families. I felt quite nervous amongst all these strange faces. While they were all discussing their work I wondered what my family were doing, and I didn’t think I would like “being in service”.
I wasn’t in the least hungry and I was relieved when the cook told me to clear the table and clear up. I wondered who would be helping me, though, when I saw the mountains of washing up from the servants’ hall, nursery and the lounge. I soon learned that the washing up was only for kitchen maids. Housemaids and parlour maids never washed up, and cooks only when the kitchen maid was off-duty, or when they needed a specific mixing bowl or some such item that the kitchen maid had got buried somewhere under the mountain.
When I had finally finished the washing up, Cook said, “We must start preparing dinner now. This is the hunting season. We always have dinner parties at this time of year”. She gave me all the vegetables to prepare and told me there would be eight people for dinner and it would be a five-course meal. I wondered how she would achieve such a meal. At home we only ever had two courses and I was fascinated with the array of delicious foods she was presenting. The butler had carefully polished all the silver, and he and the parlour maid were busy in the dining room. Dinner was served at 8 o’clock, and the guests were titled friends of Captain and Mrs Lees.
The housemaids disappeared at the sound of the gong to look down over the banister rail. When the ladies left the lounge to walk into the dining room their beautiful evening dresses and jewellery were admired from above. The housemaids had to be very quiet, though, and could only voice their opinions on all the finery afterwards. I was never allowed that privilege. Maybe it was because in one of the local households a kitchen maid had dropped her dishcloth from above, in front of a procession of lords and ladies.
The butler moved very swiftly and quietly and with great dignity. Each course was taken to the dining room in silverware. Fortunately for me the silver and glassware were always washed up in the butler’s pantry.
As each course was finished the china was all stacked in the kitchen for me to wash, after I had washed the cook’s utensils. I had never seen so many dishes. I wondered why I grumbled so much about washing up for mother. The guests lingered over their meal, and it was almost 10 pm when the last stack of dishes was brought to me. I was still washing up at 11 o’clock, and my hands were getting quite sore from using so much soda. It was almost midnight when I got into my strange bed and I cried myself to sleep.
Each morning, at nine o’clock, Mrs Lees came to the kitchen to look at the menus. She nearly always agreed with cook’s list, but occasionally she would change an item. On the first Monday morning she enquired if I was settled in all right and I replied, “Yes, thank you”. When the Mistress left the kitchen, Cook, for not addressing her properly, reprimanded me. I was always to remember to say “Madam”.
On Tuesday morning I was introduced to the under-gardener’s wife. She was a very friendly north-country lady, who came in twice a week to make butter in the dairy. I was to assist her and she explained how the butter was made and exactly what my duties were. I enjoyed working with her. She told me all about the farm which was on the estate and the names of the farm workers. One of the men brought the milk in twice a day to be separated in the dairy, and another of my duties was to wash up the utensils afterwards.
When my first payday came I received my £1 3s 4d. and sent the £1 home towards the cost of my uniform, and kept the 3s 4d. to buy writing paper and stamps for the rest of the month. I wrote to my mother every week, and almost as frequently to my dear grandmother Cook. The postage stamps were only one penny in the old currency and the writing pad and envelopes were bought for around 6p, so if I was careful I could save a few coppers for shoe repairs.
Captain and Mrs Lees were a lovely couple and were very kind. I well remember being in a car with Mrs Lees when she had given me a lift and she saw a man being cruel to a donkey, and she stopped the car and had words with him and took away his stick. I did not see the Captain so often. He was often at the farm, which was on his land and run by Mr Trehearne.
(Phyllis then tells of her days off, when she went to the home of another housemaid, Edith Ballinger. There she met Edward, Edith’s brother, who later became her husband)
The lads of the village were always looking out for us whenever we went to the shop or to post a letter. I always wore a beret and I was most upset when a lad rode past me on a bike and snatched my beret as he rode by. Not only was I annoyed about having to buy another one, but also I had great difficulty in convincing Edith that I had not been talking to the boy in question. I was quite worried about Edward getting the wrong impression of me.
Falcutt House today
We were allowed to use the hard tennis court when the family were away. Edith and I had great fun trying to hit the ball. We also played the piano in the servants’ hall and the head housemaid was an accomplished violinist. We bought sheet music for sixpence and learned to do “The Lambeth Walk”. I loved music and dance bands. One evening some other members of staff gave me some money and asked me to fetch them some hot chestnuts from the village. I set off on cook’s bike (not in uniform I hasten to add) and when I got to the village I heard a dance band playing in the village hall. The temptation was too much. I propped up the bike and went into the dance with the money that should have been spent on the chestnuts. I was not the least bit bothered about not having a partner. I was quite happy to listen to the band and all the reprimanding I got was well worth it.
I learned a lot about the local gentry, and which villages they lived in, and I heard many amusing stories about their staff. We often had visiting chauffeurs in the servants’ hall, and we were always interested to hear about their particular households. When Miss Lavinia and Miss Julia had a birthday party there would be lots of children invited, accompanied by their nannies. I seldom saw any visitors to the nursery, but I always knew of their presence by the extra cooking and washing-up.
When I had been at Falcutt for about three months I learned that Captain and Mrs Lees had a holiday home at Goodnestone in Kent. They spent six weeks there each summer with their two daughters and nanny. Not all of the staff accompanied them, but I was surprised to learn that I would be going with Edith and another housemaid.
We travelled in the chauffeur driven car, which was towing a horsebox. The Master and Mistress did not ride whilst on holiday, but the horsebox was always used to transport all of the luggage and the three dogs. The journey was very long and tedious. There were no dual carriageways or motorways, but I was very interested to see London for the first time. The family were to follow the day after our arrival, so our first evening was spent unpacking. I was introduced to the temporary cook. She was a middle-aged lady and quite pleasant to work with, but she didn’t work with the same relaxed manner as the cook at Falcutt.
I left Falcutt House in February 1939 after three years training, and went to work for a solicitor and his wife in Stony Stratford. I was well able to cook by this time, and wanted more responsibility. Edward, my boyfriend, and his father, were gardeners there, and had arranged an interview for me. I liked my new employers. They were young and had a baby of five months. I also enjoyed planning and preparing the meals, but it so happened that it was not just cooking and washing-up. I was also nursemaid and housemaid. The only advantage I had was the brief glimpses of Edward from the kitchen window, and he got many cups of tea when he was mowing the lawn!
Phyllis Ballinger, née Cook
Editor’s note: Phyllis went to Falcutt House as a kitchen maid in February 1936, and was seventeen years of age when she left the employ of Captain and Mrs Lees in February 1939.
First printed in Aspects of Helmdon No 6 (2008)